Balibo (2009)24 July – 9 August 2009

Today we say all art is political. But I’d say all art has to do with ethics. Which after all really comes to the same thing.

– Ingmar Bergman

Film has always maintained a precarious relationship with politics. Be it trumpeting nationalist, colonial and political agendas, challenging the hegemony of the establishment, or raising awareness of contemporary issues, the cinema, with its mass audience appeal, remains central to the formation of ideas, ideals and ideology. As part of la mission civilisatrice that dictated the agenda of French colonialism West Africans were forbidden from filming in their own countries until national independence was achieved in the 1960s. (1) Following his statement that “there ought to be limits to freedom”, (2) George Bush and his Republican strategists were rumoured to be behind an attempt to ban Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 weeks before its premiere in 2004. Few foreign films can meet the criteria of the Iranian government for national distribution, (3) whilst the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television controls all content broadcast in China. (4) This is to provide only a drop in the pond of politically motivated international film censorship since the Lumière Brothers first started filming factory workers in 1895.

Considering this, it makes sense that film festivals would be highly exposed to political scrutiny. Firstly, they provide a celebratory environment for the screening of films from a variety of political, national and cultural milieux, allowing audiences to participate in a cinematic smorgasbord of film tourism that simply does not exist in the everyday world of the Cineplex. Secondly, festivals provide local and international distributors and sales agents an arena for participating in the buying and selling of film products. This is key, as it is not the two festival screenings to a relatively elite audience, but rather the exposure provided and its potential for an undetermined number of screenings in the future to a much broader audience that makes the festival circuit so essential to the filmmakers and industry.

Even some of the most well-established international film festivals have a fraught political history. In fact, the Cannes film festival was itself borne from the political antagonism of pre-War Europe when non-fascist states came to realise that the prestigious Venetian film festival, la Mostra del cinema di Venezia, had become nothing more than “a fascist propaganda tool”. (5) It was 1938 and Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion was favoured to win the festival’s illustrious award, the Coppa Mussolini. Instead, contrary to the opinion of both the judges and audience, the prize was jointly awarded to Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia (1938), documenting Nazi Germany’s triumph at the Berlin Olympics (commissioned by Joeseph Goebbles), and another film made by Mussolini’s son. Outraged, France, the US and England withdrew from the festival in protest. The new Festival International de Cannes was created in response and now enjoys a prestigious status within the festival circuit. As an aside, the Coppa Mussolini was renamed the Golden Lion.

The anecdote should come as comfort for Melbourne International Film Festival director Richard Moore, whose 2009 festival was subject to not one, but a number of political controversies. The festival, which claims status as Australia’s biggest, both in scale of film selection as well as reception, has long upheld a reputation of screening a variety of films from across the globe. Australian content is promoted alongside that of its regional neighbours, with a large international selection and a variety of smaller programs that vary according to current tastes and trends of the film-going community. In 2009, it seems, the flavour of cinema is actively and unashamedly political. 2009, as Melbourne has come to realise, is the year in which art and politics meet.

* * *

The Festival Guide signalled the coalescence of the two weeks before the festival commenced. On page 6, it was announced that opening night would screen the World Premiere of Robert Connolly’s Balibo, an (imagined) depiction of the sanguinary events that led to the deaths of the Australians journalists now known as the Balibo Five, who were in East Timor covering the tumultuous period during which the country was invaded by Indonesia. By screening the film this year, to “mark… the 10th anniversary of East Timor’s independence”, (6) the audacious festival programmers overtly drew attention to the political nature of the film itself, flouting all conventions of political diplomacy regarding the relationship between Australia and Indonesia. The overtly political nature of the film, and with the attendance of East Timor President Jose Ramos Horta at the film’s premiere, coupled with the outspoken nature of the director himself, incited media concern about how Indonesia would respond. However, according to Indonesian foreign ministry spokesman Teuku Faizasyah “Indonesia regarded the film a work of fiction” – case closed. (7) Whilst a telling portent, opening night was only a soupçon of things to come.

Within the eight new specialised programming streams of the festival was “States of Dissent”, a subsection of the ever-burgeoning documentary stream. The brief overview in the guide suggested that the intention of “States of Dissent” was to give documentary filmmakers working in difficult, if not impossible situations, an opportunity to tell their stories. More specifically, it states:

Human rights violations in some parts of the world are so dire that the governments go to extreme lengths to prevent their disclosure. Here are brave docos – many filmed undercover – that shine a light on these shocking situations. (8)

With a selection of subjects spanning the rehabilitation of a post-genocide Rwanda (My Neighbour, My Killer, d. Anne Aghion) media censorship and repression in Burma (Burma VJ, d. Anders Østergaard) and a focus on North Korean refugees (Kimjongilia, d. NC Heikin), this politically-charged program was a brave choice for a festival heavily reliant on government support as well as advertising and sponsorship for its continuing existence.

10 Conditions of Love (2009)However, to expose the limits of freedom imposed by human rights violators is one thing, but to become yourself exposed to the pressures of the very governments you are criticising is another. When Moore was asked by representatives of the Chinese government to cancel the screening of The 10 Conditions of Love (Jeff Daniels, 2009), a film that charts the life of Rebiya Kadeer in her fight for Uighur autonomy from China, a new meaning to government censorship was etched into the festival’s collective memory. Whilst Kadeer may be a Noble Prize winner and political exile, she also remains, as China reminded the international community, a convicted terrorist. (9)

Moore’s decision not to yield to the pressure of the Chinese government placed the festival organisers in a precarious position. It led not only to the withdrawal of three Chinese films, but also to a series of bizarre events of attempted festival sabotage. (10) This included the hacking of the festival’s website and the disruption of its online booking system, preventing festival patrons from purchasing tickets and misinforming the public that unsold sessions were, in fact, completely sold out. (11)

The fact that Kadeer was in town as a festival guest may have contributed to the fully-fledged nature of the attack, but the ire of the Chinese government continued to be felt in domains beyond the festival for weeks thereafter. According to an article in the metropolitan newspaper The Age, the Mayor of the City of Melbourne, Senator Doyle was warned by the Chinese consul-general that the Melbourne-Tianjin sister city relationship would be jeopardised if screenings of the film were to go ahead. (12) Chinese officials made similar threats to the National Press Club, Australia’s iconic forum for public debate, where Kadeer was scheduled to give a nationally televised speech. The saga spilled into the Federal arena, as Foreign Minister Stephen Smith distanced the government’s involvement from the address, and The Australian Greens leader Bob Brown used the opportunity to criticise China’s suppression of free speech.

The Kadeer situation suffered from a rather bizarre sense of timeliness that contextualises the almost exaggerated nature of the Federal politicians’ responses. Less than a month before the festival commenced, the Uighurs made international headlines when a bloody riot in the Xinjiang province of Urumqi, which saw at least 184 killed, made international headlines. (13) At the same time, an Australian citizen, Rio Tinto’s iron ore chief Stern Hu, was detained in China with charges of spying. That Australia had granted Kadeer a visa, despite the persistent requests from China not to, appears to have become a major hindrance to the Federal government currently attempting to secure Hu’s release.

The reverberations of what was taking place in Melbourne weren’t just felt in Australia. The international coverage was widespread. In a blog entitled “We Are All Melbournian” (an inference to Le Monde journalist Jean-Marie Colombani’s now famous article, “We are all Americans”, written in the wake of 9/11),journalistRichard Brody called for the film festival community worldwide to “unite in defence of the right to program without fear”. (14)

As it happened it was the Taiwanese government who was to provide the most critical response against China’s actions. It was revealed that the Taiwanese film Miao Miao (d. Cheng Hsiao-Tse) one of the films withdrawn in protest from the festival, was partly funded by Taiwan’s Government Information Office (GIO). This sparked an outcry from the Taiwanese government, who is now demanding a reimbursement of the subsidy (equating AUD $147,000) from the film’s production company, Jet Tone, claiming that they were not consulted about the withdrawal of the film and that the company broke certain conditions pertaining to the film’s ownership. (15) An article in the Taipei Times emphasised the political nature of the issue at stake for the Taiwanese government:

The withdrawal has met with mounting criticism [in Taiwan] as it suggested not only that Miao Miao, a Taiwanese film, was categorized as a Chinese film in an international film festival, but also that Taiwan was siding with Beijing in the repression of Uighurs. (16)

Undoubtedly, the Chinese government could not have predicted the chain of effects their actions have spurred, nor the ironic promotion of the very film they sought to suppress. As research fellow for the Griffith Asia Institute Dr Michael Clarke stated in an interview on The 7.30 Report, “in [China’s] attempts to vilify Rebiya Kadeer, they’re really putting her up on a pedestal”. (17)

* * *

Although the severity of events that followed the decision to screen The 10 Conditions of Love may have been beyond the imagination of the festival organisers, the very political nature of such a programming decision allows the controversy to be understood in its proper context. That is, in selecting a series of films under the title “States of Dissent”, the festival was actively and deliberately challenging the common misconception that there is a separation between film and politics.

However, even a seemingly apolitical film can be embroiled by politics, as Israeli director Tatia Rosenthal of the stop-motion animated feature $9.99, discovered. $9.99 is a vignette of short stories dealing with everyday life in an apartment block. The title itself refers to the price of a self-help guide one of the characters purchases from a mail catalogue in an attempt to understand the world around him. On a surface level, the film is a simple tale about universal emotions and the monotony of contemporary urban society. How then, could such a film be the locus for yet another political controversy?

$9.99It was the British director and longstanding Palestinian rights advocate Ken Loach who created another awkward quagmire for the festival, when he made the connection between Rosenthal’s film, MIFF and Israeli sponsorship. Realising that Israeli funding had contributed to Rosenthal’s appearance as a festival guest, Loach requested that the festival withdraw Israeli sponsorship of $9.99, or that he himself would be forced to withdraw his film, Looking for Eric. It is important to note that Loach’s criticisms were not directly aimed at the film itself, but at the money the festival took from the Israeli government. His demand mirrored an earlier one he made in similar circumstances at the Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF), where he stated: “massacres and state terrorism in Gaza make this money unacceptable”. (18) The EIFF acquiesced to Loach’s demands.

The cultural boycotting of Israeli films and art, as well as cultural and academic institutions, has been seen by many in the international community as a means of demonstrating solidarity with the Palestinian Territories, and has been supported by 384 filmmakers and cultural producers across the globe, including Loach. (19) It has attained legitimacy through its influence on policy and sponsorship decisions made by Amnesty International, and has even been endorsed by the famous South African freedom fighter, Reverend Desmond Tutu.

In a civilised email exchange, Loach explained his decision to withdraw his film to Moore as follows:

It is the Palestinians themselves, writers, artists, academics, people from all walks of life who are calling for our support. We are forced to make a choice by those who are suffering such intolerable oppression… the cultural boycott called for by the Palestinians means that remaining sympathetic but detached observers is no longer an option. You either support the boycott or break it. For us the choice is clear. (20)

But cultural boycotting has also been criticised by others in the international community, as well as by a number of Israeli and Palestinian cultural producers and academics. Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME) is an example of a non-profit organisation that believes that, although the humanitarian grounds upon which cultural boycotting is based may be legitimate, such an approach denies both the complex nature of the Israel/Palestine situation and prevents Israelis and Palestinians access to the very forums from which debate against established policies of the nation-state can take place. That is, at the same time that advocates of cultural boycotting appeal to the Israeli people “to give up their silence”, the act of cultural boycotting potentially removes the very platforms from which their voices can be heard. (21) As an example, $9.99’s screenplay was written by Israeli writer Etger Keret, and is based on his popular short stories, which, in a humorous but critical style, deal with the serious mental and emotional effects military culture imposes on Israeli soldiers. Similarly, he has published Gaza Blues (2004) in collaboration with Lebanese-Palestinian writer Samir El-yousef, in an attempt to demonstrate that Israelis and Palestinians can co-exist.

Loach’s position on $9.99 was made more complicated by the very transnational nature of the film’s production – namely, that it was, according to Rosenthal, the first Australian/Israeli co-production. That fact that $9.99 was almost entirely produced in Sydney, financed with Australian money, with post-production in Israel, using a combination of Australian and Israeli animators and featuring a cast of some of Australia’s biggest names, made Loach’s demands all the more impossible. Thus the film was screened, the money was kept and Looking for Eric was withdrawn.

With such a bizarre series of events, it seems fitting that the festival concluded with what Geoffrey Rush described as the “rarest of genres” – the Indigenous Australian film musical (A Bran Nue Dae, Rachel Perkins, 2009). By that time, final numbers on the festival had been crunched. It saw the box office figures rise by 10% with attendance figures increasing roughly 3%. There were also a record number of sold-out sessions, despite the complications pertaining to the online ticketing system. It seems that the age-old Italian adage, any publicity is good publicity, holds water.

However, the Loach and Kadeer issues raise some key concerns for festival organisers on the whole; concerns that reflect an increasingly shrinking world as well as the complications regarding the ever more transnational nature of the film industry itself. Where does one draw the line between politics and art? And what effect does the progressively globalised nature of the industry have on the freedom to speak out against specific national policies and agendas? Is the role of the festival to show solidarity, as Loach claims, or to provide a balanced forum for discourse, as Moore asserts? While these questions remain unanswered, with the long-term effects of the festival’s events yet be determined, MIFF was right on the money about one thing: in 2009: everyone’s a critic.

Melbourne International Film Festival website: http://www.melbournefilmfestival.com.au


  1. M. Diawara (1992), African Cinema, Politics and Culture, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, p. 22.
  2. A quote from 21 May, 1999, in response to a satirical website. For more information see W. Slater, “Bush criticizes Web site as malicious”, The Dallas Morning News, 22 May 1999.
  3. A, Farahmand (2002), “Perspectives on Recent (International Acclaim for) Iranian Cinema” in Richard Tapper (ed.). The New Iranian Cinema: politics, representation and identity, I.B. Tauris, London and New York, p. 88.
  4. A. Brady (2007), Marketing Dictatorship: propaganda and thought work in contemporary China, Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, p. 107.
  5. J. English (2005), The Economy of Prestige: prizes, awards, and the circulation of cultural value, Harvard University, Cambridge, p. 71.
  6. Melbourne International Film Festival Guide 2009 Program Guide, p. 6.
  7. A. Gartrell, “Balibo case is closed, say Indonesia”, The Sydney Morning Herald, 24 July 2009.
  8. Program Guide, op. cit., p. 43.
  9. Anon, “China presses Australia film fest to drop Uighurs film”, Reuters, 16 July 2009.
  10. For more detailed information on the nature of the events that followed go to the transcript of Marie Gearin’s coverage of the events on the ABC’s 7.30 Report, 15 July 2009 and BBC News report “Chinese hack film festival site”, 26 July 2009
  11. Anon, “MIFF website hacked amid Chinese film”, ABC, 26 July 2009
  12. M. Toy, “China’s new film threat”, The Age, 8 August 2009
  13. This was according to official numbers from the Chinese government, however international human rights organisations believe this number could be a lot higher.
  14. R. Brody, “We are all Melbournians”, The New Yorker, 27 July 2009.
  15. Screen Staff, “Jet Tone, Fortissimo appeal GIO ruling”, Screen Daily, 19 August 2009.
  16. S. Hsiu-chuan & J. Michael, “GIO angered by removal of film”, Taipei Times, 5 August 2009
  17. M. Gearin, op cit.
  18. B. Lynfield & E. Pykett, “Director Loach: I’m no racist for Film Festival boycott”, The Scotsman, 21 May 2009.
  19. To see the list of filmmakers as well as the manifesto go to: http://www.pacbi.org/etemplate.php?id=315
  20. For the full email exchange between Loach and Moore, follow the link below: http://pulsemedia.org/2009/07/20/email-exchanges-between-ken-loach-paul-laverty-rebecca-obrien-and-melbourne-film-festival
  21. For more information, see the PACBI website: http://www.pacbi.org

About The Author

Alice G. Burgin is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne. She is currently writing a doctorate on the politics of language in contemporary West African cinema.

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